Coronavirus. COVID-19. Pandemic. Shelter-in-place. These have been the hot topic words over the past week and a half and understandably so.
As an adult, I have found myself having conversation after conversation about COVID-19 while trying to process what it looks like to be smart and cautious without panicking. I didn’t think much of all of those conversations until I heard a new word come out of my two year olds mouth last week. What he said almost stopped me dead in my tracks. “Worry.” He had picked up on the fact that I was worried at two years old.
Kids are incredibly perceptive and are able to recognize changes to their environment and pick up on the stress level of adults around them. If there’s anything that being in the counseling office over the last week has showed me, it is that kids are feeling worried too. Their whole worlds have been turned upside down. No longer in school, trying to learn things at home in a different format than what they are accustomed to, unable to go play with their friends or go to usual places, everything is different from them. Fully developed adult brains are struggling to process all of the changes, and their little minds are confused and worried, too.
There has been a lot of talk about how to keep families and kids physically safe and healthy during this COVID-19 pandemic, but from my perspective, health also includes emotional well-being. So what are parents to do?
1. Validate your child’s feelings. Do not tell them that they do not need to be afraid or that they will be fine. Has it ever helped when someone has told you to not feel a certain way? Probably not. Help your child understand that it’s okay to feel worried. Their daily routines have been drastically altered, so fear is a natural response. Empathy, the ability to communicate that you understand what your child may be feeling, and reassurance are what your child needs from you right now.
2. Help them understand the facts in kid appropriate ways. Feelings do not pay attention to facts. The fear center in the brain has nothing to do with the thinking center (where logic and reason exist), and kids need help sorting out what is true from feelings. Yes, teach them about ways to stay healthy and reduce germ sharing, but the facts go beyond this. Don’t avoid conversations about Coronavirus; while you may be trying to protect your child, not talking to them about it actually increases their anxiety.
Kids are hearing that people are dying from Coronavirus and are afraid it will happen to them or to a family member they love. Reassure them that most people who get sick with the virus feel like they have a really bad cold or a cough and fever. And maybe most importantly, help them remember that you are doing your best to help keep them safe.
(Check out the links at the bottom of this post for a couple of resources I have come across that explain Coronavirus in a child appropriate way.)
3. Give them some coping strategies to use when the worries creep in. In addition to fighting fears with facts, one of the coping skills that has been talked about a lot in my office this past week is deep breathing. Deep breathing floods the brain with oxygen and sends a signal to the feelings center of the brain that it is okay to calm down. I like to use the analogy of the feeling center being like a fire alarm. Deep breathing shuts the alarm off and helps connect the logic and thinking part of the brain.
Practice taking deep breaths and watching your bellies rise and fall together or download an app and use that to practice. (Stop, Breathe, and Think Kids is a good one to start with.)
4. Provide some structure for their days. Routine helps kids know what to expect and also provides a sense of control. School and daycare both provide routine. Being away from those places and outside of that routine can cause a child to feel lost and more worried. I am not advocating for a strict minute-by-minute schedule but for some sort of regularity for the day that helps kids feel less worried and know what to expect. Your routine could be something as simple as waking up, eating breakfast, getting dressed, having play time, structured learning or reading, lunch, nap/rest time, creative time, free-play time, dinner.
5. Take care of yourself by managing your own worries and monitoring how much information you are consuming. My two year old was able to recognize my worry. Kids are incredibly perceptive and in tune with their environments, so if you are worried or stressed out, they will pick up on that. If you find yourself worried about COVID-19 (whether it’s the sickness itself or all of the ramifications (i.e. economy, job changes), make sure you have healthy outlets to cope with those worries.
It is especially important to turn off the television and constant stream of news sources (social media, news headlines, etcetera). I try to have a digital detox each Sunday, and this past week, I noticed that I spent less time thinking about Coronavirus during the day when I did not see a newsfeed filled with articles and posts about it. Kids hear the news differently than what we do, and all of the information about COVID-19 is likely only going to add to their worries and confuse them.
6. Point your eyes and your child’s eyes to the hope of the Gospel. I recognize that this can be challenging to do when the worries creep in. In fact, just the other day I told my sister that I felt like it was a constant battle to turn my eyes upward and not be consumed by all of the different thoughts and worries. Use the birds you see as a reminder that God is watching out for us and will continue to provide. When you are out walking around, look for the signs of spring to help yourself remember that God will never stop caring for His children. Listen to music that reminds your heart and your child’s heart of truth. And remember, that nothing, not even a pandemic, can separate us from the love of the Father.
Resources for Helping Kids to Understand Coronavirus